History of the Boston University Physics Department, 1906 to 1970

BY George O. Zimmerman (Draft 10/20/2005)


I came to Boston University in the fall of 1963. I remember several incidents about the place before I arrived.

One was an interview at the “New York Meeting” of the American Physical Society, which took place each year in New York at the New Yorker Hotel. I remember talking to the then Chairman of the Physics Department, Professor Robert Cohen, and possibly some other faculty member. I remember Cohen and Edmonds, who arrived several years before me, coming to my lab at Yale, I was wearing a white lab coat at the time, a garb I decided to wear after ruining several shirts and pairs of pants with soldering iron and acid burns. They seemed to be impressed by the lab which then contained mainly home made equipment and instruments. That was early 1963.

I remember coming to Boston and not being able to find Boston University. I finally found a sign on Commonwealth Avenue and parked in the lot of the School of Fine Arts, which had a precipitous entrance. It took quite some skill to maneuver my white Chevy Impala into the lot. Clutch and manual shift. Don’t remember much of the visit except that I was taken to the Faculty Club for lunch. It was crowded, smoky, but looked much more inviting than the IBM cafeteria which I was taken to in Poughkeepsie, NY some months before and was offered about twice the salary offered at Boston University. The eating pace was also much more leisurely than at IBM, although the Faculty Club building was old and in need of maintenance. 147 Bay State Road later became the Executive Building of the President of Boston University.

At the time I came to B.U., I had about five or six job offers. One was at the National Bureau of Standards, another at IBM in Poughkeepsie, NY. One was as an Assistant Professor at Ohio University, one at Burroughs in (Peyoli) suburb of Philadelphia, PA whose salary offer IBM topped by $500, and a postdoc-Assistant Professor combination at Duke University. There were also others including one as the physicist in charge of a nuclear reactor bought by a rubber manufacturer for the possible improvement of polimerization. Remember, that was the “SPUTNIK” era, when the USSR threatened to leap ahead of the USA in the technology race, and we were trying to either catch up or overtake it.

I had a friend from college, Alan Sinel, who was a Graduate student at Harvard in Russian History, studying with Richard Pipes, then a famous professor because of his anti-Soviet attitude, that being fashionable in some circles, but not in academia. Pipes, came from Europe before WWII, and later turned out to be a relative by marriage once I met and married my wife. Alan and I took a cross-country trip together in the summer of 1960. I would visit Al in Cambridge every once in a while and found the Boston Area quite confusing. I would come into Cambridge from Rte. 2 and drive around, usually winding up at the Boston Common when I would then return to Cambridge and find the street and house where Al lived. A wooden three-decker. He lived with some roommates, and once I left in the morning after eating the last English muffin in the house. I heard about that.

Anyhow, I decided to come to Boston University using a decision method which I since recommended to many of my friends. I made up my mind to go there and without telling anyone about it, lived with the decision for a day. It felt OK and thus I decided to do it. Had it not felt right, I would have changed my decision. In retrospect, and also at that time, the decision to come to the Physics Department at Boston University was motivated by several considerations which I subsequently saw in some colleagues. At the top was the fact that I would have a position of a Professor, Assistant Professor to be exact, without having to serve the apprenticeship of being a post-doc. I knew what I wanted to do, and the professorship gave me the freedom to do it. It was true that coming to BU had the disadvantage of not being able to get the latest instruments and get the best graduate students, but the freedom to pursue one’s own research, to pursue one’s own ideas, was worth it. There were also other disadvantages like obtaining funding or building a reputation, but more of this later.

That was the foremost reason. Others were the Boston area and the fact that Boston was not too far from New Haven, CT. At that time I was quite attached to my parents because of the events caused by WWII less than 20 years earlier. The cultural milieu and the social climate of Boston were other attractions.

It was on Monday, April 22, 1963 that I decided to accept the Boston University offer, although the salary was more than 50% below that of industry. As mentioned above, I considered that my intellectual freedom was worth the price. I called Bob Cohen, the Physics Department Chairman, to let him know of my decision, and got no answer. I called the main Physics office, and again there was no answer. I finally called the Boston University main line and then the EMERGENCY number, where I was told that this was a holiday. This was my first introduction to the various holidays celebrated in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, and not celebrated anywhere else. It was Patriot’s Day.

My decision was communicated the next day, accepted with great joy and personal warmth, and a discussion about the facilities, support, room, graduate students etc. was enjoined. I was given two rooms at 700 Commonwealth Avenue which at that time housed the Physics Department and, because of its quality, a cinderblock WWII construction with an atmosphere to go with it, was described as a “three story basement.” I was on the first floor and there was one floor up and the basement below me. It turned out that below me were experimental psychology labs which contained rats, and which were subsequently and periodically flooded whenever there was a sink stoppage or burst pipe in my lab. I hope that the psychology experiments were not significantly effected by the floods.

When I joined the Department, I met an extraordinary set of colleagues. It is said that most physicists think that they are smarter than anyone else, including other physicists. This was certainly the case here since most of us thought that we were changing the world. Changing the world for the better, of course. Some of us had theories which would change the way we look and understand the universe, physics, the world. Others wanted to change the world social order.

There was also the Greater Boston Greater Physics community. That was both an advantage, since Boston University faculty could collaborate and take advantage of colloquia, facilities and collaborations with colleagues at other universities in the Boston area, and a disadvantage since the Boston University faculty could not easily compete with those who had greater resources at other universities, it being a relatively new Physics Department. The plan was not to compete but explore areas not being explored by others. The Boston University Physics Department was in the shadow of MIT and Harvard from which it recruited some of its faculty. It was recreated by Robert Cohen who was and is as much a philosopher as a physicist after 1957 when most of the physics faculty left Boston University.